For what seems like an eternity, nothing has been able to alter the perception of New Jersey as the land of swamps, Superfund sites, and Tony Soprano. All that may have changed two weeks ago when Gov. James E. McGreevey stunned onlookers and a national television audience by admitting he'd had an affair with a man and would resign.
Suddenly, the tired "What exit?" jokes were replaced by barbs about the gay governor and his peccadilloes, real or perceived. Hardly a day goes by that a comedian doesn't step up and take a few more whacks at what amounts to a hanging curveball over the middle of the plate.
On CBS's Late Night With David Letterman, the host wondered aloud whether it was "too early to hit on Mrs. McGreevey." Craig Kilborn cracked on CBS's Late Late Show that the governor was chipping in to the relief effort for Hurricane Charley by sending throw pillows.
HBO's Bill Maher mused, "Apparently he was having an affair with a homosexual Israeli poet, who he appointed the state's homeland security adviser. Which partially explains why New Jersey's terror alert colors were parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme."
The potshots can have a negative effect over time, according to Cliff Zukin, former director of The Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers poll. In a poll last year, 72% of New Jerseyans described their state as an "excellent" or a "good" place to live--a seemingly healthy percentage unless it is compared with the national average, which is 12 points higher. Only 38% of people living outside the state described New Jersey in those positive terms. "The image of government and organized crime tends to be what goes outside the borders of the state, and it's unhealthy and it's inaccurate. I think this reinforces it," Zukin said.
Rutgers professor Michael Aaron Rockland, coauthor of Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike, said people he has talked to generally laud McGreevey for admitting he is gay but criticize him for reportedly hiring a person he was involved with. "I see it as a tiny step forward," he said. "Maybe history is always made with three steps forward and two-and-a-half steps back. If there were no taint of corruption to this, I'd be very proud of having a gay governor. Then again, we didn't elect a gay governor, because we didn't know he was gay."
The only verbal missiles McGreevey's office has responded to are the ones from former aide Golan Cipel, whom administration sources have identified as the man with whom the governor had the affair.
According to Mark Moran, coauthor of Weird N.J., a compendium of trivia and oddities about the Garden State, public officials may be the only ones whose hackles are raised by the cheap shots. "The thing about New Jersey people is, it just rolls off their backs," Moran said. "Our feelings are never hurt by jokes like that. We don't see ourselves as the butts of a punch line. It really doesn't faze us at all."